May 1, 2011|"Ian, my brother." A casual greeting turned into an awkward embrace, and I realized then that all the time I had spent researching director Tom Shadyac's career wasn't going to play much of a role in the ensuing conversation. Shadyac was in town to discuss I Am, his self-conscious, documentary break from light family fare--which, he hopes, will change a few minds about the essential nature of humanity. (If he doesn't consider the days of Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor, and Bruce Almighty to be behind him, this was not, I correctly surmised, the publicity tour on which to discuss it.) When we sat down to talk, I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about I Am. The director sensed my skepticism from the very beginning, and he didn't try to convert me in any traditional sense of the word. He just wanted to hash out our respective feelings on the film and have a decent conversation about them. I sort of wish that his vibrant personality shone through in I Am as well as it did in person; his statements here were delivered like an interesting university lecture, whereas the movie feels a bit more hectoring in its approach. And, yes, he followed through with a second hug at the end of the interview.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: So, this is typically an ender question, but I think it's a good start to ask what's next. What's next for you?
TOM SHADYAC: I'm gonna serve this conversation until it tells me what to do next. So I could do another film. I would happily serve another comedy. I would happily make another film of the narrative kind--Ace 3? But this is a conversation that I need to see through. So we may have a talk show birthed out of this, and we may have another film that is kindred, but I'm gonna wait and see.
Did I Am come with any kind of specific plan to that end?
No. It came with a very passionate belief that I did not want to die with this conversation inside of me. This is a conversation. Do you know what I mean by that?
I definitely understand that. One thing I wanted to ask, actually, is that your previous films want to engage in that conversation. You've approached ideas of bucking the system, connecting with other people, and the follies of material obsession before. Did you think that there was something lacking in how those messages had been delivered?
Well, I think those were slices of the same pie, but this is more about the whole pie. This is very much a film about how a person who brought the energy of Patch Adams into the world--which was a person who refused to commoditize medicine and saw a kind of wealth in serving that was much more powerful than the material wealth, and he served that--how I could bring that message into the world, and yet I could be also accumulating a lot of things myself and serving a different kind of wealth. So this film is about how that hypocrisy happens, and how I was unaware and not awake. [T]his is kind of an alarm clock that I share with people that happened in my own life, and I offer it as an alarm clock to others.
Did you get any kind of resistance--from studios, from anyone--in the making of this picture?
They couldn't. How could they resist? I'm the studio. I'm financing it. It's independent. In fact, when I was in the post-production process and I needed some help from the studios for footage, for music, they were very helpful. And the people who've seen it--and it hasn't been that many, a few dozen, in show business--have been incredibly supportive. They're seeing principles that are speaking to them.
Is there an inherent hypocrisy to your business? I just ask that because the way you present this is very straightforward... You're right that this is part of a conversation, but at the same time, maybe it's just an inherent cyncism on my part, on the audience's part, that sees a simplistic angle to the presentation of these images that's difficult to get behind.
I'm gonna give you a quote from Emerson. "Men, such as they are"--men such as you and I are--"seek money or power. And why not? For they aspire to the highest. And this, in their sleepwalking, they dream is the highest. Wake them, and they shall quit the false good and leap to the truth." So that cynicism that you're talking about may be a part of being asleep to what is the most powerful thing that we humans, in this experience, know. That is, connection, love, service, kindness, compassion. Creativity, celebration, dance. None of those things you can quantify, right? But we're serving, now, a model of quantification. Money, strata, power, status, et cetera. And if that paid and made you infinitely happier, infinitely had more meaning in your life, that would be the message that Emerson would have said in that quote. But Emerson said something very different. Men are aspiring to the highest, so right now we think it's money and power. So we're deluded to thinking it's money and power. And we're not deluded because we're bad. We're young, and we're a young species. We thought, "Wow, if I have everything, that'll be awesome." And you get everything, and you realize it's not as awesome as I thought. It's like eating a sugar doughnut. I get high for a moment, but, oh, but what is awesome--oh, wow, I was able to serve my neighbour, I was able to give them a thought, make them a meal, help them be educated. That was awesome. Because I see that person now, walking, and every time I see that person I'm reminded of the beauty of our connection. So it's about being asleep. We're simply asleep. And what I'm saying--the dots I'm connecting in the movie are not new. They're ancient. You know? And when the Native Americans saw us coming, they said, "Wow, this is an illness that's affecting these people." And I fully believe that I was part of a mental illness. A mental illness is not seeing things as they are. And so I wasn't seeing things as they are. I talked about that moral life, but I allowed myself to be co-opted by an economic ideology that separated me from you. So we have to rethink this stuff.
I guess that sort of cuts to the heart of what I was trying to ask about hypocrisy. Can you still participate in this model--film distribution?
Why not? I just did. I don't know how many people will see it. I don't have the money to put it on television. Like, Bruce Almighty had thirty million dollars of advertising or more behind it, I don't have that. But it's a piece of work that's in the world now, so people will find it. So why can't we serve it? I've got to get off this train of the idolatry of magnitude, which is everything has to be a hundred-million dollar hit. We think that everything has to be big to be effective, and that's simply an idolatry, that's not seeing things as they are.
The basic argument behind the film is that we can change, that it is possible. But how long do you think this would take? What kind of revolution is going to have to take place for a major change?
I think when we look at it that way, we get overwhelmed. I have to think about--"When are you gonna change?" or "When is he gonna change?" or "How much evolving has to happen?" I ask a different question, which is, "Can I change?" That there's something that I'm seeing differently, and waking up to--can I change? And if I change, will that matter? And the answer to that latter question is not only absolutely, it's virtually quantifiable now. We know that when one person shifts, energy shifts through their immediate circle of influence. That circle of influence has a circle of influence, and that ripples into infinity. So as long as we see things outside--"I can't solve poverty, I can't stop the problems of a war"--we are going to disempower ourselves and become overwhelmed. But if we take it from a much simpler question, and a much more profound question, which is, Can I change, that's when the power starts to shift. It starts to get very interesting. Because when enough people change--when you change, and when I change, and when she changes, suddenly out of nowhere we have revolutions. Like what's happening in Egypt. If those people in Egypt were saying, "Wow, how many people in Egypt are gonna have to change before we get over this idea of dictatorship or autocratic societies, where we can be free--ugh, I just can't see it." But what they did was--undoubtedly, which is how all revolutions happen, is someone said, "I'm gonna be open. I want to start having this conversation with my friends. I want to have the courage"--for which you could probably be jailed or killed in an oppressed society for being open in your thinking. "I'm gonna have the courage to do it." Little did they know that someone was having the courage, and someone else was having the courage. And then social media connected them all and the walls fall. So I don't really take an interest in "when"--although I know it has to be soon. That's my belief. But I don't know for a fact how long we can sustain this. I just know that it's unsustainable. So my major concern is to live it as powerfully as I can and to share it with a passion. And the results are not up to me. (pause) Tell me, what's troubling you? Very disturbing film to some, I get it.
It's got a lot of stuff that's difficult to process. The thing is, I think I need to take another look at it.
Good, good, good, good. Many people come back for a second and third viewing. But tell me, what else disturbed you? It's good. Disturbing is good.
I don't think I'm cynical. I don't think I'm a cynical person. I really do believe that what you're saying is possible. But on the individual level and on a cultural level, I think that there's a resistance to an open culture... Just this idea of "go back where you came from." Where they think that their culture--what they grew up with, what they know--is the only thing that needs to be known.
Who are the "they" that we're talking about? Like, say, this generation that's saying that's saying that this is unrealistic? My father's generation thought it was unrealistic. I can't qualify a whole generation, but my father thought it was unrealistic, what I was talking about--so "forget your ideas." Is that what you're kind of talking about?
Like I say, I don't consider myself a cynical person. I don't want to blame "human nature," because you're arguing against the idea that human nature is a lizard-brained concept. I just think there's a resistance on the part of the individual, and many individuals--too many individuals.
What is this resistance?
Just this idea that people are coming in from different countries, other cultures, and there's a resistance to that, where people say, "It's watering down our culture."
Can you consider the idea that what you're talking about it is happening, but that it's from the very ideology that is a poison that is spread throughout the world? So why would you resist an African-American culture? Why would you enslave an African-American? Why would you resist a culture that has a different--a native--culture? If you see things as they are--that's your brother, that's you're sister, that's a different expression of whatever this creative force is that you talk about--it's beautiful. As long as it's respectful, it's beautiful. But the poison that is spread throughout the world, which is what we talk about in I Am, is..."That's not true. That's separate. That's not my brother and sister. I have to separate myself out from that. My safety's more important than their safety." That's all an ideology that's been built at a certain time in history. Now, if that ideology was always a part of human history, that'd be tough. But it isn't. If you look back at native cultures that are 175,000 years old--the human species that we know of, some say it's much older than that--but native ideologies believed something very different. It was only ten thousand years ago, when we invented agriculture. Agriculture allowed us to store food. I can store [so] much food--I can dominate nature! We used to think we were deeply a part of nature. We had to have nature. I had to have the flour that I could forage for and eat as a part of my diet. I had to have the deer--and so we were a part of nature. And I needed you, [the] members of my tribe, to work together. We were all in it together, so to speak. And even rival tribes were treated with a certain amount of respect--they had war, but never the conflicts like we have. Tit for tat, essentially.
But what happened when agriculture happened was a whole different philosophy emerged. We could take everything. I could store everything. And then you could say, "Well, why is Tom storing everything? Where's my share?" And it pulled us away from something that was very organic to the indigenous hunter-gatherer kinds of culture. And this is not the noble savage. This is the principles that were different in their society that allowed them to live in a sustainable way. And we've broken from that tradition. Beautiful things have come--technologies--because I don't have to worry about food. You don't have to worry about food today, you can go out and become a writer. You don't have to worry about food, you can go out and learn how to build houses. We can be creative. But what's happened is that the creativity that has blossomed from that--the ideology behind that creativity--has come at the expense of the natural world and of our relationship with each other and all living things. That's gotta shift. So the ideology that you see walking in when someone says, "Why are you here? I'm a xenophobe, I don't want your culture," was born at a certain point. You see, it's not necessarily who we are, it's a branch on the tree that's gonna fall off. It's a way we're exploring. If I protect myself, it doesn't work. I'm gonna kill you first before you kill me, that creates an energy. Now your son's going to kill my son. But my son's gonna kill you first. I'm gonna kill your society, then I have to rebuilt your society. It's a kind of insanity that we're finally, I believe, waking up [from]. Does this make any sense?
I get that--that came through in the film. Those are the major points that you talked about and I definitely understood that. The major problem, what I'm saying here is that there's a resistance to the idea that culture is always changing. And what you're telling me is that you think we can get past that."
There's a resistance to the idea that culture is always changing. You think it should change?
Culture should change because culture is always changing. New ideas come in from new perspectives--
And you say there's a resistance to change.
Well, there's always a resistance to change. Always. But change still happens. And if you look at the change that's occurred throughout history, it's a very different story than what you're being told. There's a book called The Empathetic Civilization that I encourage you to read, it's by a guy named Jeremy Rifkin. And he talks about the evolving change of our species towards empathy. The reason that we're so, I'll use the word "cynical," or I'll [say] "we don't believe it," is because we're told a very different story. You are told--every day you'll go home and you'll watch the news and the reason you see the car theft on TV, and the reason you see the shooting in Arizona as the news is because it's the aberration. You and I are having a very civil dialogue, even though we're not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing. Very civil dialogue--that's a beautiful piece of energy. That will not make the news tonight. You'll write an article about it, but it's not gonna be on the news. Now, if you were to punch me, that might make the news: "Director Assaulted." And the reason it makes the news is because of the aberration--and the larger story of humanity, this move towards love and kindness, is not being reported. So I think we get stuck on the atrophy, and we don't see everything else underneath the atrophy, which is this movement. That woman, Madeline [our PR contact], is gonna open the door for you, she's gonna thank you for coming. I'm gonna hug you when you leave, and none of this stuff will make the news. Millions of times, trillions of times, that's gonna happen, today. Not gonna be talked about. Somebody will steal a car in Boston, and that'll be on the news tonight. So the story about the atrophying of culture, and the resistance to change, is a story, and it's a force that we meet all the time, but we get through that force. That's why the African-American's walking around now, and he's not under the Jim Crow laws, because we change. Because we see something more powerful. That's why women now vote, and that's why we have to take another step and give equal everything. We do change, because there's something pulling us--a very powerful force that is more powerful than division. It's called love, and it's pulling us in this direction. And it's a force, and if it isn't a force, and it's not more powerful than separation, we will not make it as a species. We are not programmed to make it. If we're pitted against each other, we will simply not make it.
So I believe the moral [is] that love is more powerful than hate. If that's not true in a practical sense, don't believe what I said. That was Gandhi. I agree. Whoever created this--call it the Great Connective Tissue, if you will, the Big Electron, as George Carlin said--of course that creative force put laws into effect that were true. Because if hate is powerful, I would get power by killing you right now, and I'd be elevated by society for killing you. But we know that that's not true. I'd be put in jail, I should be put in jail, and everybody would rail against that act, because deeply in them, there's a program that says, "That's not how we're gonna make it." So this resistance that I think you're feeling I believe is taught. I believe you've been taught that resistance. And I offer you the encouragement to question it, and to really look at our history, and to see how change has happened, and to see right in front of you what is happening. Egypt--you were born and Egypt was a more totalitarian, autocratic, dictatorial society. That's changed, literally, in the last month. And what changes could happen by the time you're my age--fifty? By the time you're seventy-five? What walls could fall? Holy smokes. Change is a part of life. You've changed since this conversation. And so have I.